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Commentary & Opinion

Stephen Gottlieb: Statues And The Arc Of Justice

Let’s talk about statues. I love Michelangelo’s and was privileged to see his masterpieces in Rome. And I’m moved by Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of a seated Lincoln in the Washington memorial that bears his name. I think’s it’s ironic to tear down or even reconstruct the statue, erected by the freedmen themselves, of Lincoln with a former slave – the freedmen knew the difference between enslaving and freeing people and wanted to commemorate and honor their liberation while preserving the understanding of the great moral wrong that had been done to them.[1]

But I don’t have much feeling about Schuyler. He was a flawed man who did both good and bad. I know a fair amount of the history and statues don’t influence me much although as a teen my family took me, at my request, to see many of the iconic battlegrounds in New York where a large part of the Revolution was fought. None of those battles were fought by statues – if you are looking for an image of a statue taking action in this world, I’d recommend the statue of the Commendatore whose demons carry Don Giovanni off to a well deserved hell in Mozart’s opera.

But there is more at stake here than statues. Snowballs stop and melt if they run out of snow. Movements need victories, even little unimportant ones, if they are to keep going. Black Lives Matter is the culmination of centuries of anguish. As a lawyer, I know the legal steps that enslaved, killed and embittered the lives of so many African-Americans, and I can pinpoint the case that gave rise to a century of impunity in which the worst of this country’s racists lynched and sometimes burned African-American men, their homes and even their towns.[2] I will never forget listening to Eric Goldman, one of my professors at Princeton, describe a lynching at Coatesville, Pennsylvania.[3] As my son said to me when I asked him a technical question about 9/11, “You don’t want to know, dad.” And you don’t really want to know about Coatesville. It works only for nightmares.

But I thought, as Martin Luther King said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice". My hero as a six year old was Jackie Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers, my team. It was my privilege to invite Jesse Owens, African-American winner of four Olympic medals in Hitler’s face at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to my high school and introduce him to my class assembly, and then enjoy my classmates telling me how much they appreciated what Owens had to say. It was also my privilege as a lawyer to spend several months as a full time volunteer in the New York legal office of the NAACP – I’ve been following that arc of the moral universe and devoutly waiting for it to bend toward justice. I want history’s blacksmiths to hurry up and bend it and if it takes the loss of a few silly statues to keep the momentum going, hail, hail, I’m for it.


[1] https://www.npr.org/2020/06/27/884213464/dc-statue-of-lincoln-standing-over-a-formerly-enslaved-man-sparks-controversy

[2] United States v Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1875).

[3] I don’t know if Goldman ever wrote up his lecture but here’s a link to someone else’s reconstruction, https://timeline.com/the-forgotten-lynching-of-zachariah-walker-was-one-of-our-most-shameful-and-it-was-in-the-north-678871b13f2d.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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